Puerto Rico earthquakes devastate island, deter conference VIM visit

Also read: Puerto Rican Methodists begin earthquake response

By John W. Coleman

The recent earthquakes and aftershocks that crippled much of Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory, caused casualties, devastated its power grid, reduced access to electricity and water, and forced people to sleep outdoors to stay clear of their damaged and vulnerable homes and buildings. Other countries in the region were also severely affected.

A devastating, magnitude 6.4 quake struck primarily in southern Puerto Rico on Tuesday, Jan. 7. The largest of more than 500 reported quakes and tremors that began Dec. 28, it killed one person and injured nine others, while knocking out power across the U.S. territory.

By the next day more than a quarter-million Puerto Ricans were without water. Another half-million, spread over two-thirds of the island, were without power, which also affected telecommunications. Authorities say there is no established timeline for when power will be restored to the island.

Thousands of residents slept outside in cars and chairs, on cots, and in government shelters, as tremors continued. It’s the worst earthquake crisis to hit the island in over a century. Gov. Wanda Vázquez and President Donald Trump both declared an emergency on the island, activating the National Guard. There are also reports of a tsunami alert in the wake of the earthquakes.

Bishop Hector Ortiz (left)

Methodists respond to earthquake disaster

The Methodist Church of Puerto Rico (MCPR) is trying to provide relief and encouragement, led by Bishop Hector Ortiz. Officials are addressing urgent needs, distributing supplies and conducting assessments and outreach. Its partner agency, UMCOR (United Methodist Committee On Relief) has awarded the church a solidarity grant to help with immediate needs. UMCOR will soon send a team there to help with assessments and arrangements for more relief aid.

Two Methodist churches in the heavily hit Ponce area were damaged extensively, along with other houses of worship and many homes. One Methodist church had recently reinstalled stained-glass windows broken by Hurricane Maria in 2017; but once again those windows were destroyed.

Another sad consequence of the earthquake is the cancellation of a planned Jan. 15 trip there by an Eastern PA Conference Volunteers in Mission team—our fifth—that was to work on repairing and restoring homes damaged by Hurricane Maria.  Bishop Peggy Johnson was on the team, led by the Rev. Shauna Ridge, who was on our conference’s first Hurricane Maria VIM response team that went there in November 2018.

The Rev. Shauna Ridge (front, right) with BIshop Hector Ortiz (center) and the first Eastern PA Conference VIM team in Puerto Rico, November 2018.

Both Ridge and Bishop Johnson spoke with Bishop Ortiz and leaders of the MCPR’s relief agency, REHACE (Rebuilding Communities with Hope), on Thursday, Jan. 9, and also spoke with UMCOR (UM Committee on Relief) officials. Their team of 27 volunteers was to have worked for a week in the island’s southeast region, joined by Bishop Ortiz, just an hour away from the worst damage, Ridge said. However, their placement would have been changed to Arrecibo.

“But even with a power generator there, there’s still no guarantee of sufficient electricity or running water, which are needed for us to do our recovery work,” she explained. “We want to be helpful and not a hindrance at this time.”

The team would also have included the Rev. Bumkoo Chung, West District Superintendent; the Rev. Jenny Freymoyer, Assisting Elder for the North District; nine members of Ridge’s church, Thorndale UMC; five members of Hopewell UMC; and other volunteers from the Eastern PA and Peninsula-Delaware conferences.

VIM trips to Puerto Rico to resume but at higher cost

Each volunteer paid $1,000 to cover airfare, camp lodging and food, rental vans for transportation to and from worksites, insurance and other costs. Ridge hopes to be able to recoup the groups’ full airfare from American Airlines; but that may be unlikely since the emergency status prohibiting incoming flights will have ended by the 15th.

Ridge, who has a long-held passion for disaster recovery mission trips, said she hopes to reschedule the VIM trip to Puerto Rico for the fall, by early October, if team members and/or others can commit to going then. The Rev. Nicolas Camacho, who heads the conference’s overall, long-term Hurricane Maria VIM response effort, plans to take his next team there in November.

The Rev. Nick Camacho (center) with Eastern PA Conference VIM work team and REHACE staff at home repair work site in November 2018.

Ridge and Camacho both lament the rising costs of VIM trips to the island, especially for multiple rental vans, now that REHACE is splitting visiting teams into smaller sub-teams to work on several distant properties at one time. The two leaders may ask Bishop Johnson to request that some ongoing conference Puerto Rico disaster response donations be directed and used to subsidize the increasing costs of future VIM trips, which can be more difficult for some volunteers to raise and provide on their own.

“We join Bishop Ortiz, the MCPR, UMCOR and Methodists everywhere in fervent prayer for the people of Puerto Rico—for their safety and recovery from this latest terrible disaster,” said Bishop Johnson. “We can be thankful that they are a deeply faithful, resilient, resourceful people committed to helping one another, which is a lesson quickly learned by all U.S. volunteer teams that go there. May we all continue to support these crucial relief and recovery efforts through our prayers, presence, gifts, service and witness.”

Donations may be made to Conference Advance Special #0345PR and sent to the Conference Treasurerto support the conference Helping Puerto Rico Rise Again campaign.

NOTE: Visit UMCOR’s Facebook page for updates and photos of Puerto Rico’s disaster conditions and response. And follow #PuertoRicoEarthquakes. You can support the work of UMCOR and REHACE by donating to Advance #901670.

To learn about Puerto Rico’s readiness for VIM teams and other teams planning to visit, contact Tymera Jackson, UMCOR’s U.S. Coordinator for Puerto Rico Volunteers, at 914-615-2248 or puertoricovols@umcor.org.  Or visit the UMVIM-NEJ website, managed by the Rev. Tom Lank, coordinator. Lank plans to take a team there March 3-20

Also read: Puerto Rican Methodists begin earthquake response